Alexander on Patterns, Architecture, and Design

RJO’s Reviews on Amazon.com

These brief book reviews have been posted to Amazon.com, and they may be viewed there in their original form either collectively (on my public reviews page) or individually (by following the link at each title below).

Empirical Architecture and Humane Social Design

A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction
Christopher Alexander, et al.
Oxford University Press, 1977

The attention that this book has received from many quarters is well deserved. Although formally a work on architecture, it is really a handbook for anyone concerned with the development of healthy and humane social environments.

Alexander and his colleagues are successful because they take an empirical approach to architecture. Instead of beginning with abstract geometries, they go out into the world and study buildings and social spaces that do in fact work well. From these observations they generalize a set of “patterns”—common structural and spatial elements—that support living communities. These pattern elements range in scale from city-wide features to the placement of furniture in rooms.

I am an advocate of decentralized residential colleges within large universities as a way to improve the quality of campus life. I was pleased to find most of the specific structures that I have been trying to promote within universities included among Alexander’s patterns, and to find many of them refined and improved upon. For example, the patterns “Zen View,” “Activity Pockets,” “Sleeping in Public,” “Child Caves,” “Pools of Light,” and “Half-private Office” are all ones I have used in trying to establish strong educational communities. Indeed, the idea of a residential college itself corresponds to the pattern “Identifiable Neighborhood” with its limit of 400-500 people. And every university that built high-rise dormitories during the period of architectural insanity that was the 1960s should study and act upon, preferably with a wrecking ball, the implications of the pattern “Four-story Limit.” (“There is abundant evidence to show that high buildings make people crazy.”)

Like many great books, A Pattern Language a bit idiosyncratic. But it is such a rich mine of ideas that you shouldn’t let, for example, the occasionally illegible figures bother you needlessly. For a book this influential, however, and one that has already gone through more than twenty printings, the publisher (Oxford University Press) really ought to invest in the preparation of an index.

Buy this book and turn to it often, and compare the ideals that it presents with the real world that less enlightened people have built around you.

© RJO 1995–2022